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Press Release 98/61

FAO CONCERNED ABOUT SEVERE DECLINES IN SHARK STOCKS - INTERNATIONAL PLAN OF ACTION CALLS FOR SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT


Rome, 21 October - Many of the world's shark and ray species are severely depleted and unless efforts are undertaken promptly to halt growing catches, the future of many more shark populations is very bleak, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.

Representatives from around 70 countries, among them the major fishing nations and many observers attending an FAO Consultation, are expected to approve an "International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks", an "International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries" and "Elements of an International Instrument for the Management of Fishing Capacity". The conference will be held on 26-30 October in Rome.

Sharks are a cheap source of protein for millions of people from coastal communities dependent on subsistence fishing, according to FAO. Sharks are used for their meat, fins for shark fin soup, liver-oil, skin, teeth and cartilage.

Many shark species are extremely vulnerable to overexploitation because sharks are slow growing and long-lived and mature at a late age. This, together with their low fecundity, results in a low reproductive potential and makes them susceptible to overfishing. It takes many years for sharks to recover from severe depletion.

The commercial exploitation of sharks increased dramatically during the past 20 years all over the world. Total world landings of sharks grew from around 272 000 tonnes in 1950 to a record of 760 000 tonnes in 1996, according to FAO statistics. Most of world shark catch is not taken in targeted fisheries but incidentally as bycatch.

The major shark fishing nations are Indonesia, followed by India, the US, Pakistan, Mexico and Taiwan Province of China. Other important countries are Japan, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Malaysia, France, the UK, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Spain, New Zealand and Maldives.

Shark fishing is expanding worldwide as the international trade in shark fins and other exotic shark products grow rapidly. Shark fins, highly appreciated in oriental cuisine, are one of the most expensive fish products in the world.

A great number of sharks are taken as bycatch in fisheries targeting species such as tuna, swordfish, shrimps and squid. In these fisheries, the carcasses are usually thrown back into the sea after their fins have been chopped off. The longline fisheries for tuna of Japan, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan Province of China account for most of these bycatches. The incidental bycatch of elasmobranch fisheries, which includes mainly sharks and rays, was estimated at the end of the 1980s at 260 000 between 300 000 tonnes or 11.6-12.7 million fish, mainly blue sharks.

After the worldwide dramatic increase in exploitation of shark stocks, many shark populations are now believed to be endangered. There are indications that of the 100 exploited species, around 20 are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

Among shark stocks of main concern are: Silky Shark, Basking Shark, Porbeagle, Narrownose Smooth-Hound, Piked Dogfish, Dusky Shark, Tope Shark and Shortfin Mako Shark (see also http://www.fao.org/WAICENT/FAOINFO/FISHERY/sidp/htmls/shark).

No international treaties or strategies exist so far for the management of sharks. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US (Atlantic coast only) manage sharks within their coastal waters. Shark fishing restrictions currently exist in South Africa, Australia, the UK, Canada, US, Brazil, Philippines, and Israel.

The proposed voluntary International Plan of Action says that "management and conservation strategies should aim to keep fishing mortality sufficiently low that each species or stock can maintain itself." Each state shall establish a body for shark conservation and management, shall assess its shark stocks and shall prepare and implement a national shark-plan. Countries are expected to publish shark reports regularly.

Shark management plans will aim to control threats to the sustainability of shark populations through management; to minimise waste and discards; to stop directed fisheries in which only fins are retained; encourage full use of captured sharks for shark meat, fins, livers and other parts. Such plans, covering at least the most threatened species, should be implemented by the beginning of the year 2001.

Meanwhile, FAO said that concerns over the incidental catches of seabirds that are killed by longline tuna, swordfish, billfish and various demersal fisheries is growing. A total of 61 species of seabirds has been recorded as killed by longline fishing operations on at least one occasion. Mostly affected are the albatrosses of the Southern Ocean. "For some species the level of incidental mortality is considered not to be sustainable, and their populations are in decline," according to a new FAO review.

Longline fisheries use baited hooks that do not always sink immediately. Seabirds become hooked when they try to seize the bait. The weight of the line drags hooked birds down and drowns them. Incidental mortality of seabirds is most severe in the cold fish- and bird-rich waters of the North and South Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Oceans.

The "International Plan of Action" on seabird bycatch suggests several alternative measures to reduce the incidental bycatch of seabirds: setting the lines under water so that baited hooks are out of reach to seabirds; the use of bird-scaring lines; setting lines during darkness, which has already proven to be highly effective.

It is assumed that mitigation measures can reduce the catches of seabirds by longlines significantly, probably up to 90 percent, at a relatively low cost for the industry.

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Total elasmobranch landings (sharks, rays, skates, etc.):

1950 271813
1960 345895
1970 486030
1984 601944
1985 626231
1986 634234
1987 669656
1988 692736
1989 675520
1990 687353
1991 709527
1992 727715
1993 741334
1994 752310
1995 756634
1996 758793

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For further information please contact the FAO Homepage (http://www.fao.org/WAICENT/FAOINFO/FISHERY/faocons/faocons.htm) or

Erwin Northoff, Media Officer, tel: 0039-06-5705 3105; fax: 0039-06-5705 4975; e-mail: Erwin.Northoff@FAO.Org.

 


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